Kenyan Theatre round-up for 2016
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Kenyan theatre in 2016 had many more wins than loses. There were new theatre groups formed, new theatre venues established and new playwrights who emerged over the past year.
There were also more established groups taking fresh initiatives (like Gilb’Art Productions doing ‘Edufa’ and Aperture Africa doing ‘Jungle Book’); older theatre venues also picking up steam (like Kenya National Theatre); and known writers being more innovative and often more collaborative in their approach to theatrical productions.
The best example of this last notion of creative expression by collaboration is Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s working with Jalada’s Moses Kilolo and his crew to PAWA254’s Mageuzi Theatre among other venues.
But then, there are also other groups, like Heartstrings Kenya, that produce some of their best shows through a collaborative process (like their last play, ‘Behind my Back’). Other groups that work collaboratively to produce wonderfully creative shows are the Nyef Nyef Storytellers who devised A White Wedding, Maimouna Jallow’s ‘And then she said…” and the Performance Collective which dramatized Yvonne Adhiambo’s ‘Dust’.
There was also good news that came to light as the year drew to a close, when the Minister of Sports, Culture and the Arts, Dr Hassan Wario informed theatre fans at the 2016 Sanaa Theatre Awards that the Kenya Cultural Centre finally had the title deed to the land on which resides the Centre and Kenya National Theatre.
He also told us of the plan (no longer a rumor) to construct a Kenya International Arts and Culture Centre on the land adjacent to the National Theatre. In these announcements, Dr. Wario seemed to be signaling greater support for theatre from the Kenya government in the coming year.
The National Theatre itself was finally being utilized relatively well in 2016 as there were more events staged there than previously: everything from the Nutcracker Ballet and the Sanaa Theatre Awards to June Gachui’s musical extravaganza marking her album launch of ‘June at 20’, Elsaphan Njora performing his ’51 Nzilani, a man on a journey’ and Millicent Ogutu’s staging of ‘Three Fold Cord’.
Fanaka Players continued doing their popular Kikuyu plays at KNT as did Festival of Creative Arts (staging ‘Nuts+’ twice due to popular demand) and even Gilbert Lukalia’s company Gilb’Art Productions put on the West African musical ‘Edufa’ twice at National Theatre this year.
Other amazing venues that attracted attention and substantial audiences in 2016 were The Elephant, especially when Eric Wainaina and Sheba Hirst produced Claudia Lloyd’s enchanting interpretation of original Kenyan folktales, ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’ and The Oshwal Centre where Aperture Africa produced ‘The Jungle Book’ twice during the year.
Both settings were perfect for performances that enchanted both children and adults alike. Both shows also set high standards of professionalism, not only in terms of the scripts, acting and directing but also the costuming, lighting and sound.
But there were also some disappointments in 2016 One that I found most surprising was the absence of plays by William Shakespeare staged, especially as there have been worldwide celebrations of the 400th anniversary since he passed on.
The other local playwright that I missed in 2016 was John Sibi [Ms1] Okumu who previously promised his public that he would produce one original play a year. He’s been fairly consistent up until now, but we’ll have to wait for his next new script, he says, until early next year. Other outstanding local playwrights who entertained us with original scripts were Silvia Cassini with ‘A Man like You’, Kuldip Sondhai whose historical drama Don Geronimo was revived at Mombasa’s Little Theatre and Sitawa Nambelie for both her new script, ‘Room of Lost Names’ and her older ‘Silence is a woman’ which she just staged at National Museum.
Another disappointment is news that Phoenix Theatre may die in 2017 if it doesn’t pay the rent soon. This is disheartening, especially after great shows like Fences, The Hit Man, Middle Ages and Black Maria Striper were staged well at Phoenix in 2016.
Finally, the biggest disappointment of all in 2016 was Ezekiel Mutua’s audacious move to monopolize power over Kenyan creativity with his aggressive proposal of a so-called ‘Film, Stage Plays and Publications Bill’ in the name of protecting Kenyan morality and children’s minds (as if they don’t already have access to YouTube and the worldwide web on their mobile phones).
The bill is a huge over-reach for a man who’s only CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board. But it’s also wonderful to see Kenyan creatives taking on this bully-man to ensure 2017 will be an even more artistically innovative than the outgoing year.